The Deadly Morels

by Michael Wood (April 1, 1987)

An urgent warning has been given to all mycophagists not to collect morels for the table as a new potentially deadly species that mimics the black morel of the Sierras has recently been discovered.

In an article in Mycotoxin: The Journal of Fungal Toxicology (Vol.XIII, No. 2, April 1987), Dr. Jacob Joculus of the Department of Botany and Dr. Mary Mortiferens of the Department of Public Health, both of the University of California at Berkeley, have described a new species of morel, Morchella pseudophalloides, that contains the same deadly toxins as the death cap, Amanita phalloides.

The new species was discovered during a research project where putative edible California fungi were being chemically analyzed for trace amounts of known fungal toxins. During thin layer chromatography (TLC) tests of morels, about 6% of the black morels were found to have small but significant amounts of amatoxins. These morels were separated from the rest and a thorough study was made of their morphological characteristics. It was discovered that although the amatoxin containing specimens were macroscopically indistinguishable from the black morel, Morchella elata, that there were minor but consistent microscopic differences and the new species, Morchella pseudophalloides was named. A complete description of the newly named fungus can be found in the Mycotoxin article.

Although no deaths have yet to be attributed to this new species, Dr. Mortiferens stresses that a large meal of M. pseudophalloides is potentially deadly, and that smaller quantities consumed over a period of time could cause severe liver damage. "Our advise is that no black morels be eaten--it is just too dangerous", Dr. Mortiferens told me in a telephone interview.

In order to continue their research on toxic morels, Dr. Joculus and Dr. Mortiferens need as many specimens of morels as possible. They have eagerly accepted my offer of help from the Mycological Society of San Francisco. I have agreed to accept collections of morels from members of the MSSF and deliver them to their laboratory at the university. So, fellow fungophiles, this year you should collect morels as usual, but you must not eat them. Deliver them to me and I will see that they are properly cared for. Please, it's for science!

Originally published in the Mycena News, April 1987.

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